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Debating the merits (or lack thereof) of net neutrality is a waste of time. Not because it's a bad idea -- enabling equal broadband access for all is noble -- but because it's impractical. Net neutrality doesn't allow for managed services, and managed services are how telecom and cable providers will make money when the Internet becomes the primary vehicle for delivering voice, data, and video content around the globe.
What a smarter Internet can do
Make no mistake: The Internet is already taking traffic from the traditional telephone network. Researcher Dell'Oro Group says the number of VoIP lines served via broadband is on pace to grow 27% a year from 2009 to 2014.
That cheering you hear in the background is from telecom executives -- they want to do more business over the Internet. Last year, AT&T (NYSE: T ) called analog telephony "relics of a bygone era," and is now supporting Skype on the iPhone. AT&T, Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) , and Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S ) are preparing their networks for the day when the Internet makes the public switched telephone network obsolete.
When that day comes, carriers will make their money from managed services that offer more than garden-variety Internet connectivity. Services such as teleconferencing or broadcast streaming, or perhaps web-connected TV.
Why net neutrality was a good idea
Net neutrality stands in the way. By definition net neutrality means a network can't favor one type of traffic over another. Whether by region, by provider, or by content, under net neutrality, distributors must remain, well, neutral.
This principle made sense in the early '90s. Bandwidth was precious, and unlike today, AOL (NYSE: AOL ) and EarthLink (Nasdaq: ELNK ) could be counted on to make a good living from access fees. Had either of them had the authority to choke off traffic for any reason, the Web as we've known it might have died an early death.
Today, AOL and EarthLink are barely relevant and bandwidth is plentiful. Web surfers that once suffered with 64K dial-up modems are today downloading as much as 50 megabits of data every second.
Net neutrality supporters will tell you that, with that much bandwidth available, there shouldn't be a need to shape traffic or "manage" web services. There's enough horsepower to go around. Web TV should just work.
If only that were true.
Remember: this is the Internet we're talking about, and despite rumors of it being a bunch of tubes, in reality it's a concatenation of servers, storage, wires, and wireless access points. The Internet's chaos is its strength -- there's no single point of failure -- but it also means service can be unpredictable.
Now imagine knowing that as a telco executive. Imagine seeing reams of data that says there's demand for TV over the Web, and for VoIP, and for video-on-demand. You want to offer these services widely, but you can't guarantee reliable delivery without prioritizing traffic. Yet net neutrality rules prohibit you from doing that. See the problem?
Focus the debate where it belongs
Politically, it's never good to be against any proposal that falls under the purview of the fairness doctrine, and supporters will tell you net neutrality is about fairness. We need rules to prevent carriers from deciding who gets to use the Internet, and how.
You know what? They're right.
But that's about the only courtesy I'll extend in this debate. So long as carriers are ensuring reasonable speed and access for all, in every region in which they operate, why shouldn't some traffic shaping be allowed? Managed services are a necessity for today's Web.
By "managed services," I mean are services that are built to deliver a certain level of quality of service (QoS). It's a technical term, referring to the throttling or enhancing of traffic in such a way as to ensure priority traffic reaches its destination as quickly as possible. Net neutrality policy leaves little room for such strategies.
Regardless, QoS is popular technology. Both Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO ) and Juniper Networks (Nasdaq: JNPR ) make routers that embed QoS. And why not? QoS is the key to delivering advanced services over an inherently volatile network such as the Internet.
In the cloud computing era, either we consumers will adopt QoS equipment to manage VoIP calls and streaming in our homes and offices, or connectivity providers will do it for us, in the network, for a fee. Which sounds easier to you? If your answer is the latter, you're right.
Regulators and activists should take note. And wherever the net neutrality debate heads next, arguments should center on what consumers need in the cloud computing era. Almost everything else is a distraction.
That's my take. Now it's your turn to weigh in. Do you support net neutrality? Why or why not? Let the debate begin in the comments box below.